Why did the nation let its guard down this autumn, get back on the tube and into football grounds? Because we felt it was worth it
It is incredible to think of where we were this time last year: nearly a month into a national lockdown, with the prime minister’s promise of Christmas bubbles planned for but never quite believed, and the atmospheric sense that every stranger represented a threat. We talked a lot about hugs, and stayed miles apart in the Tesco Metro. It was, in short, like living in a 1950s sci-fi dystopia, a subdued life of managed disturbance, just before something absolutely terrible happens. Now all our thoughts are on the Omicron strain, and the gear change, from complacency to deja vu, is pretty lurching.
The new daily case rates this time last year were averaging nearly 16,000; this week’s daily average is around 43,000. It’s an imperfect, even daft comparison, since the vaccine was yet to be cleared, let alone administered, and we hadn’t mingled for nearly a month. Comparing hospitalisations shows a different picture: there are around 8,000 people in hospital today, it was more than double that a year ago.
The government has been relaxed about that high case-rate plateau. The system concern was always that the NHS would be overwhelmed: in a post-vaccine Britain, that anxiety receded. Omicron could be vaccine-resistant but cause less severe symptoms; or it could be vaccine-resistant and just as deadly, which would leave us back at square one. It’s dispiriting but predictable to watch measures unfold exactly as they always have, with procrastination and optimism amounting to fatalism.
At the level of the individual, attitudes are more perplexing – I was never especially worried about being hospitalised, yet a year ago, I powerfully wanted to avoid catching it, and when I finally did (this February), I felt obscurely ashamed, as though I had done something stupid or careless, rooted in some character flaw – a congenital failure to keep myself to myself. If I caught it now, by contrast, there are so many people I’d blame before I got to myself that I don’t even know if I’d bother finding a culprit.
At the psychological level, the data is echoed in the anecdata: it just feels like everyone has Covid again. A third of both my kids’ classes are off school; colleagues, friends, people on social media; a fashion friend has a very new strain, she says, because obviously.
The “nudge unit” set up by David Cameron, which once used its assembled behavioural expertise to make wrong projections about the future, anticipated mass resistance to lockdowns and found none. The relatively lesser burden of wearing a mask, by contrast, unleashed vehement opposition (not least within the Conservative party), which mingled with anti-vax sentiment to create a trenchant conspiracist protest movement. The human spirit is harder to predict than it might look, but just because you can’t predict behaviours doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from observing them. Why did the nation let its guard down this autumn, get back on the tube and into football grounds, and resume partygoing?
One simple answer is that we have reached the end of our attention span: the risks of returning to normal are still higher than we’re prepared to take, but we’ve got bored of thinking about, still less talking about those risks. It seems to be what Chris Whitty was talking about at the weekend when he said: “My greatest worry at the moment is that people … if we need to do something more muscular at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?”
But this doesn’t take into account how many of us have not simply got bored, but are making mature and informed decisions about getting on with life. Now that most of us are double-jabbed and many boostered, lots of us have decided that going to the pub or party – factoring in the risks of long Covid and new strains – is something we are willing to risk. For others, it comes down to economics. Research from the thinktank Class conducted over summer revealed that half the British public could not afford to self-isolate if they became ill.
Currently, streets and trains are still crowded, pubs are still desperate for staff, the great tanker of general behaviour has yet to turn itself around and head back towards 2020. But the shadow of the Omicron strain already underlines some certainties about the pandemic: the only measures that can avert new variants are decided at an international and national level – a dynamic push for global vaccination and a better social safety net to allow people to isolate. It seems so compelling, particularly on the brink of a crisis, to accuse one another over an excess or absence of caution, yet it’s always been a dead end.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist